FPI Bulletin: A Blind Eye Toward Freedom in Cuba

Monday, September 21, 2015
By Ellen Bork of The Foreign Policy Initiative:

A Blind Eye Toward Freedom in Cuba

On Friday, President Obama spoke with President Raúl Castro by telephone, to discuss the latest set of restrictions on trade to be lifted by the White House. Meanwhile, Cuban authorities arrested more than five dozen activists before and during a papal visit to the island, said José Daniel Ferrer, the leader of Cuba’s largest dissident organization. These arrests are the latest indication that the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Cuba is a one-sided affair that will legitimize the Castro brothers’ dictatorship without bringing liberty to the Cuban people.

The president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council described the recent changes to U.S. policy as “seismic”. American companies will now be able to business directly in Cuba, whether by creating subsidiaries or opening offices there. Americans will also be able to open bank accounts in Cuba. In addition to a number of American firms, the primary beneficiary of these changes will be the Cuban regime, not private enterprise. According to Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, “Every single trade and commercial transaction with Cuba has to be done through an entity owned and operated by the Cuban dictatorship.”

Rather than diminishing, there has been an increase in detentions over the course of this year. In August, there were 768 arrests, the highest monthly tally for 2015, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. Sometimes, senior American officials acknowledge what is happening. In response to the round-up prior to the Pope’s visit, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, tweeted about the arrests, adding that they amounted to “disappointing business as usual for the Cuban government.” Yet such candor is the exception, not the rule.

In other cases, the White House has not simply closed its eyes to the regime’s oppression, but refused to acknowledge the dissidents’ existence. When the U.S. Embassy in Havana was reopened with a flag-raising ceremony on August 14, the U.S. chose not to invite any dissidents. Implausibly, Secretary of State John Kerry explained that the ceremony was a “government-to-government affair,” with no space for members of civil society. The editors of the Washington Post responded, “Inviting the dissidents would be a demonstration to Raúl and Fidel Castro of what the flag stands for … Not inviting them is a sorry tip of the hat to what the Castros so vividly stand for: diktat, statism, control and rule by fear.”

For its part, Havana does not even pretend to be changing. Cuban officials say engagement with the US will not change the country’s policies by so much as “a millimeter.”  “Decisions on internal matters are not negotiable and will never be put on the negotiating agenda in conversations with the United States,” said Josefina Vidal, director of U.S. affairs for the Cuban Foreign Ministry, in an interview with Reuters.  However, in important respects, Washington is willing to pretend that Havana is changing. In its annual report on human trafficking, the State Department unexpectedly upgraded Cuba from Tier 3 – reserved for the worst offenders – to the Tier 2 watch list.  According to the Department’s annual report, countries on the watch list must launch “significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance” with anti-human trafficking standards. Previously, Cuba spent 12 consecutive years languishing in Tier 3.

The Obama administration also removed Cuba from the official list of state sponsors of terrorism. U.S. law allows for this change if Cuba has not supported terrorism in the previous six months and provides assurances it will not do so in the future.  Havana maintains it should never have been on the list in the first place.

The significance of Cuba’s removal from the terrorism list is chiefly as a stepping-stone toward diplomatic relations and the eventual lifting of the embargo.  The new opening for U.S. firms to conduct business in Cuba is part of this strategy. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), articulated the administration’s rationale: “As we get more and more complex exceptions and rules and regulations, it just becomes more obvious that we have to lift the embargo.” However, an end to the embargo depends on either congressional action or the coming to power of a democratically elected government in Cuba.

President Obama’s behavior indicates his apparent belief that the U.S. should give up its economic and political leverage before receiving any assurances that democracy will one day come to Cuba.  He justifies this approach by citing the examples of normalized U.S. relations with China and Vietnam. However, what those examples show is that diplomatic and economic openings may strengthen the ruling party rather than creating pressure for it to respect human rights and personal liberties. Both China and Vietnam remain one-party dictatorships decades after the U.S. expanded its commercial and diplomatic ties.  Both have been able to build up their militaries and upgrade their repressive apparatuses. Only by insisting on a linkage between opening and reform can the U.S. secure a better outcome for the people of Cuba.

Testifying before Congress in February, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski stated: “The nature of the Cuban regime has not changed and we have not claimed so. … I have no indication that they have any desire to become our partner … That's not the way this works in any authoritarian state.”

So how does it work? The administration hopes that a taste of prosperity will create an ever-growing appetite in Cuba for economic—and then political—freedom. Yet there is no reason to believe that Cubans lack such an appetite. Rather, they lack the means to confront an entrenched dictatorship that will employ violence to preserve its power.  By legitimizing and enriching that dictatorship, the Obama administration’s policy will only make the dissidents’ struggle even harder.

While the administration seems fully committed to a policy of rapprochement without conditions, Congress should defend the principle inscribed in U.S. law, that a restoration of freedom is the essential prerequisite for lifting the American embargo. In the meantime, Congress should expose the false premise of the administration’s policy toward Cuba while pressuring both the White House, as well as the Castros, to respect the Cuban people’s inalienable rights.